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1. “Where do you buy these?”

barnesnoble cherryhillNJ 300x231 Where do you buy these?

Barnes and Noble at Cherry Hill, NJ.

Eight years ago, the question shocked me: “Mr. Ribay, where do you buy these?”

The student was holding up a book. He had no idea where to buy a book. That was my first year teaching in Camden, NJ and the first time I had ever encountered someone who had to ask this question. But it wouldn’t be the last.

“Umm,” I said, “a bookstore.”

The answer seemed obvious, but later I thought about it further. Had I bought it in a physical bookstore? I probably purchased it online. This eighth grader couldn’t do that without a parent with a credit card. And where was the nearest bookstore? It was in the suburbs, and, again, this eighth grader probably couldn’t get there without someone willing and able to drive him.

Furthermore, the city’s public libraries left much to be desired. They actually closed down completely a few years later, making Camden the largest city in the United States at the time without a public library (thankfully, a couple branches eventually reopened as part of the county system).

camdenfreepubliclibrary 500x375 Where do you buy these?

The Camden Free Public Library

That simple, surprising question actually spoke volumes: Camden, the resting place of Walt Whitman, was a literary desert. It’s not that there weren’t people who still read and wrote, as there certainly were. I knew students who read well above their grade level, inhaling books like oxygen, and then offering profound comments that left me reeling. But the sad truth was that they were few and far between.

Many students in the inner-city do not grow up in literacy-rich environments. They may not have been read to regularly as children. Their houses might not have contained several shelves of books. They might not take regular trips to the library or a store that only sells books.

Eight years later, I now teach high school English at a charter school in West Philadelphia, but this question and its implications have remained in the forefront of my mind. Relative to the nearby neighborhood schools, our students perform pretty well, with a vast majority of each graduating class gaining acceptance to four-year colleges or universities.

Yet our average student still reads below grade level, our top students’ SAT scores are unimpressive, and a majority of our students couldn’t tell you the last time they read an entire book for fun.

I appreciate the complexity behind acquiring language and literacy. But it seems to me that on the whole these are the cumulative consequences of not being surrounded by books and learning to love them. It’s a simple truth overlooked amidst today’s mania for testing: if kids experience the joy of reading, they will read more and become better readers. A student bombarded with practice reading comprehension questions or scripted intervention curriculum for hours a day, year after year, learns only that they hate what they are being told is “reading.”

So, fellow educators, how do you get your students to love reading, to enjoy a book so much that they want to find a bookstore and go buy it? How did you ever get to that point?

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The post “Where do you buy these?” appeared first on The Horn Book.

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2. Jane, the fox & me, by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

I am smitten with this graphic novel that hits all of the right spots for any tween who has ever felt alone.

Hélène has been dumped by her friends. Not only dumped, but they are actively making her life intolerable.  Huddled in the hallways of school, snickering when she walks by, writing on the walls of the girls' bathroom.  "Hélène weighs 216! She smells like BO?" There's nowhere to hide.

Hélène finds some solace in her reading of Jane Eyre.  She reads better when her old friends aren't on the bus.  If they are she can at least look like she's not listening even when she can't help but hear them.

Hélène doesn't want to burden her mother with what is going on. Her mother works so hard for the family, and Hélène doesn't want to add to her pile of things.  But her mother does have to take her shopping downtown when it is announced that Hélène's class will be going to the woods to nature camp for four nights.  Four night with Geneviève, Sarah, Anne-Julie and Chloé.  And bathing suits will be involved.

Not surprisingly Hélène is selected into the tent of outcasts.  Which is okay with her because at least it's quiet.  But a chance encounter with a fox and noticing the empathy in someone's eyes combine to shift Jane's world of exile.

Exquisitely drawn, this is a book to be owned.  And shared.  I borrowed it from the library, but then quickly purchased the English and French versions.  Jane's life is depicted in black and white, while the Jane Eyre portions are awash in blocks of color.  I would buy this book for the panels on pages 58-59 and 74-75 alone.  I look forward to reading the (original) French version to see what nuances might be different.  This is a quiet book, but it is not to be missed.

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3. The Mark of the Dragonfly: Jaleigh Johnson

Book: The Mark of the Dragonfly
Author: Jaleigh Johnson
Pages: 400
Age Range: 10 and up

I quite enjoyed The Mark of the Dragonfly a brand-new middle grade/middle school fantasy novel by Jaleigh Johnson. The Mark of the Dragonfly is set on another world, one that bears a resemblance to ours, but also includes non-human races and humans with unusual gifts. Piper lives on her own in the bleak Scrap Town 16, eking out a living as a scrapper and a machinist. Scrappers salvage items from other worlds that arrive in certain areas via meteor storms (an example is a book: "Embossed on the front cover was a picture of a girl and small dog. Next to her stood a grinning scarecrow, a lion, and man who looked like he was made entirely of metal.") 

Piper has a gift for machinery, and is good at refurbishing some of the recovered items. But she longs for more. Her life changes forever when she finds a mysterious, fragile girl in the scrap fields. Piper ends up on a quest to help Anna find her home, though the two girls are pursued by a powerful and dangerous man.  

The adult quibbler in me questions how Piper's world can be similar to ours in many ways, despite being on an apparently separate planet. But this wasn't enough to dampen my appreciation for the book. I liked Johnson's inclusion of other intelligent races, coexisting with humans in the world. 

But the real reason that I enjoyed the book is that the characters in The Mark of the Dragonfly are quite strong. Piper is angry about her father's death, and determined to make a better life for herself. She struggles plausibly with doing the right thing. Anna is a bit more of an enigma, by design, but she is fascinating, too. She has only fragmented memories of her life, but she is drawn to books, and can spout various arcane bits of knowledge. There are some nice supporting characters, too, including a potential love interest for Piper (all quite PG, still suitable for upper elementary and middle school kids).

The plotting in The Mark of the Dragonfly moves along quickly, with several dangerous encounters that will keep readers turning the pages. The ongoing puzzle regarding who Anna is, and why she is being pursued, lends a more over-arcing suspense. 

The Mark of the Dragonfly wraps the initial story up nicely. No cliffhangers here. But given the depth of the world that Johnson has created, I do hope that there are future installments. Recommended for fans of middle grade fantasy with strong characters and unusual worlds. This one is going to stick in my memory, I'm sure. 

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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4. I Even Funnier - an audiobook review

Below is my review of I Even Funnier: A Middle School Story, as it appeared in the March, 2014, edition of School Library Journal. I loved it!

PATTERSON, James & Chris Grabenstein. I Even Funnier: A Middle School Story. (I Funny Series, Bk. 2). 3 CDs. 4 hrs. Hachette Audio. 2013. $18. ISBN 9781478925156.

Gr 3–7—Wheelchair-bound Jamie Grimm is working on new material for his upcoming entry in the regional finals of the Planet's Funniest Kid Comic Contest. Patterson and Grabenstein pay homage to the timeless comedy of Abbott and Costello, Groucho Marx, and other greats, while introducing new jokes that speak directly to the middle school experience. Though it will date the series more quickly, references to trendy Vegas casinos and comedians such as Ray Romano, Ellen DeGeneres, Steven Wright, and Chris Rock give the book an air of hip relevancy. Can Jamie find humor in his bullying cousin, Uncle Frankie's medical emergency, and confusing relationships with Gilda Gold and "Cool Girl?" Yes, he can. And if you're wondering if a heavily illustrated comedic novel can make it as an audiobook, that's a yes, too. Young Frankie Seratch is perfectly cast as the narrator of this heartfelt and very funny look at middle school and family relationships. Seratch ensures that the humor comes across as intended, without a hint of mockery or maliciousness. A PDF companion file of the book's illustrations is included on disc three.


Copyright © 2014 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.

Note: I did not read or listen to the first book in the series, and had no trouble getting up to speed with the characters and story.

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5. Review of The Children of the King

hartnett children of the king Review of The Children of the Kingstar2 Review of The Children of the King The Children of the King
by Sonya Hartnett
Intermediate, Middle School    Candlewick    266 pp.
3/14    978-0-7636-6735-1    $16.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-7636-7042-9    $16.99

Continuing her string of novels exploring the effects of war on innocents (The Silver Donkey, rev. 9/06; The Midnight Zoo, rev. 9/11), Hartnett’s latest book tackles the home front. In the early days of World War II, twelve-year-old Cecily Lockwood, her older brother Jeremy, and their mother flee London for the safety of Uncle Peregrine’s country manor. Jeremy chafes at being packed off to the country, since he desperately wants to contribute to the war effort, and tensions escalate between mother and son. Meanwhile, Cecily and an evacuee named May discover two boys dressed in fifteenth-century clothing hiding in the nearby ruins of Snow Castle, as Uncle Peregrine begins to recount the legend of Richard III and the young “Princes in the Tower.” As always, Hartnett’s gift for language deftly conveys both the sublime and the mundane in life. “[The sun’s] heatless light reached over miles of marsh…and finally crawled, with a daddy-longlegs’s fragility, up the walls of Heron Hall to Cecily’s window.” Hartnett grounds the relatively minor fantasy presence in the book with a heartfelt examination of the pain and hardships, endured by civilians in wartime. Cecily is a naive, spoiled, but well-intentioned heroine, effectively contrasted by the quietly independent and mature May and impetuous, brave Jeremy. Over the course of the story, Hartnett’s characters waver between feelings of helplessness, anger, and fear; ultimately, they find the necessary resolve to carry on.

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6. Keeper of the Lost Cities: Books 1 and 2

Books: Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities, Book 2)
Author: Shannon Messenger
Pages: 512 and 576
Age Range: 8-12

I don't recall whose recommendation inspired me to try this series, but I picked up the first one on Kindle recently, and I was completely hooked. In fact, I have to admit that I was hooked in spite of myself.

The first book, Keeper of the Lost Cities, starts with a 12 year old girl who has never quite fit in who discovers that she is actually an elf. And not just any elf, but a special elf, for whom elves have been searching for years. I'm so over this "chosen one" premise, with all its echoes of Harry Potter. (There's even a special school.) And yet ... I was hooked anyway, from Kindle sample to low price purchase of book 1 to the higher priced purchase of book 2. These books have even helped me to exercise, because I want to keep reading. Here, I'll talk her mainly about the first book, and endeavor to avoid spoilers for those new to the series. 

Naturally, I have been asking myself "what makes these books work for me, despite certain thematic parallels?" I think it boils down to a combination of relatable protagonist and thorough world-building. Oh, I have a technical quibble or two about the world-building. But I still love it. Like this:

"She stood at the edge of a glassy river lined with impossibly tall trees, fanning out their wide emerald leaves among the puffy white clouds. Across the river, a row of crystal castles glittered in the sunlight in a way that would make Walt Disney want to throw rocks at his "Magic Kingdom." To her right, a golden path led into a sprawling city, where the elaborate domed buildings seemed to be built from brick-size jewels -- each structure a different color. Snowcapped mountains surrounded the lush valley, and the crisp, cool air smelled like cinnamon and chocolate and sunshine." (Chapter 3, Page 19, Book 1)

Who wouldn't want to go there?

The main character, Sophie, has been hearing other people's thoughts ever since an accident that occurred when she was five. She has a photographic memory, and is about to graduate from high school at twelve. She loves her family, but looks nothing like them. So when a strange boy with gorgeous eyes comes along and tells her that she's actually a long-lost elf, well, this isn't as much of a shock as it might have been. 

Sophie quickly learns that she will have to give up her human family and go to live with the elves (they live in hidden cities, where humans aren't allowed). A kidnapping attempt convinces her that this is necessary, even as it breaks her heart. Once in the elf city, she has trouble fitting in at school, and with her new foster parents. She is insecure and anxious, and desperately wants to understand her own background. Her combination of gifted and vulnerable is, I think, what made her get under my skin. 

The elf city is full of fabulous buildings, interesting customs, and delicious (vegetarian) foods. It's a brighter, more glittery world than that of, say, the Harry Potter books, even as danger lurks. I found myself wanting to spend more time there. There are also interesting social aspects (it's quite hierarchical, for instance), which I expect to develop more as the series progresses. 

The plot is filled with conspiracies and hidden clues, set against the mishaps of a girl raised by humans adapting to elf-hood. I did see a couple of the twists coming, but I also puzzled over the motivations of the people leaving Sophie clues, and wondered who Sophie should trust. The ending is quite suspenseful.

Several of the supporting characters are strong, though I would like to see a couple of Sophie's friends fleshed out a bit. Age-wise, I think this book is fine for elementary school kids who are strong readers (it is long). But there are enough hints at crushes and peer groups to keep it relevant for middle schoolers, too. 

The second book picks up right where the first one leaves off, and has the same feel. Here are a few snippets from the books, to give you an impression of Sophie's voice:

"That night Sophie dreamed the Keebler elves were holding her hostage until she perfected all their cookie recipes. Then she told them she liked Oreos better, and they tried to drown her in a giant vat of fudge. She woke in a cold sweat and decided sleep was overrated."(Chapter Six, Book 1)

"There were many, many questions racing through Sophie's mind as she scratched her neck where the furry collar was tickling it. But the most important one was probably, "Why am I dressed like a shaggy elephant?" (Chapter Sixteen, Page 146, Book 2) 

While I can see these books perhaps not working for jaded adults who have read a lot of fantasy, I think that kids will really enjoy them. Personally, I've found the Keeper of the Lost Cities series to be addictive, and I look forward to the next book. Recommended for fantasy fans, boys or girls, age 8 and up. 

Publisher: Aladdin (@SimonKids)
Publication Date: October 2012 and October 2013
Source of Book: Bought them both on Kindle

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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7. The Shadow Throne: Jennifer A. Nielsen

Book: The Shadow Throne (Ascendance Trilogy, Book 3)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Pages: 336
Age Range: 10-14

The Shadow Throne is the conclusion to Jennifer Nielsen's Ascendance Trilogy, after The False Prince and The Runaway King (links go to my reviews of those titles). I found the first part of The Shadow Throne difficult to read due to excessive bleakness (including torture). But once I got through that part (and I never doubted that Jaron would get through it), the rest of the book was an exciting race to a thrilling and clever ending. 

As The Shadow Throne begins, King Jaron's country is at war, besieged on all sides by enemies (some who were once allies). The woman he loves (if he could but admit it to himself) has been taken hostage, and the woman he is betrothed to, a Princess, is in danger. He does have the loyalty of his core team and of his people. But it's going to take every trick in Jaron's arsenal, and then some, for Carthya to make it through the war intact.

The Shadow Throne retains the best aspects of the prior two books: Jaron's voice and Nielsen's thorough worldbuilding. Jaron retains his core determination under even the harshest of conditions. He bends, he grieves, he almost breaks, but then he's back to his sarcastic and sometimes reckless self. Here are a couple of snippets:

"Then I ran over to Imogen, whose honey brown eyes blazed with disapproval. I knew she'd be angry with me -- she often was. I rarely blamed her for that since, admittedly, I usually deserved it. But this time, it wasn't the sort of anger I could laugh off. We remained in a very dangerous situation."(Page 68)


""I told you to humble him," Vargan said to his men. "Does he look humble?"

In all fairness to his soldiers, until the moment I spit on their king, I probably had looked pretty humble." (Page 105)

In addition to plenty of action (much of it centered around battles and escapes), The Shadow Throne includes a bit of romance, an appreciation for friendship, and aspects of a coming-of-age novel. One thing that I especially like in this book is the way that, despite writing about a fairly traditional, male dominated civilization (the men go to battle, the women cook), Nielsen creates strong female characters, too. Princess Amarinda is smart and tenacious, as is Imogen, though the two young women are quite different from one another. And there's a wonderful scene in which the local women turn out to protect a surrounded city. (The army captain says: "The men may have fought for this city, but it will be the women who save it.")

Nielsen's plotting is strong in The Shadow Throne, too. This would actually be an enjoyable book to re-read, knowing the ending, to review all of the clues that she has planted along the way. It all comes together in a highly satisfying finish. 

I will say that The Shadow Throne, even more so than the other books in the series, is quite dark in places, and not for the faint of heart. I think it's more a middle school book, or even a high school book, than a middle grade novel. The publisher lists it on Amazon as being for ages 10-14, but I personally see it fitting better at the higher end of that range (and going up to adults). It is certainly boy- and girl-friendly. 

The key to enjoying The Shadow Throne, I think, lies in trusting in Jaron's cleverness and resilience, which keeps even the darkest situations from seeming impossible. Don't even think of reading this book out of order. But for those who like dashing adventures with kings and pirates, leavened with humor, The Ascendance Trilogy is not to be missed. Fans of the series will be pleased with The Shadow Throne, I think, particularly the last 2/3 of the book. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: February 25, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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8. Knightley and Son: Cracking the Code: Rohan Gavin

Book: Knightley & Son: Cracking the Code
Author: Rohan Gavin
Pages: 320
Age Range: 10-12

Cracking the Code is the first book in the new Knightley & Son series by Rohan Gavin. It features a father and son team of detectives. As the story begins, Alan Knightley, a once successful London private investigator, has been in a pseudo-coma for four years. His son Darkus has spent the four years reviewing and memorizing his father's old cases, and internalizing Sherlock Holmes-like methods of analytical detection. When Alan wakes from his extended sleep, Darkus finds himself drawn in to the investigation of a shadowy conspiracy involving people who commit peculiar crimes after reading a self-help bestseller. 

Cracking the Code is dark in tone, though occasionally humorous. Although this is strictly true, it feels looking back like the entire book takes place at night, on dark London streets. There are supernatural overtones, though the question of whether anything supernatural has actually occurred is skillfully left murky. There are also sufficient private eye novel trappings to make readers feel grown up, though the story is appropriate for middle schoolers.  

The characters in Knightley & Son are unconventional and just a hint larger than life. Darkus is an unabashed geek, who says things like this:

"So I conclude that the only possibility is that you were in fact the culprit, Clive--by accident of misadventure, of course. And I will hazard a guess that if you measure the zipper on your fashionable new coat, in all probability you'll find it's approximately one yard from the ground." (Chapter 3: The Case of the Scratched Quarter Panel)

You can definitely hear him channeling Sherlock Holmes (and his father, for that matter). Fortunately, Darkus's stepsister, Tilly, adds a more emotional component to their eventual investigative team, as well as much cooler hair. 

The humor in the book tends to be understated, as when a colleague of Alan's stops unexpectedly by the home where Darkus lives with his mother, stepfather, and Tilly. As he leaves he says:

"Thank ye for the tea, and the rather disappointing snacks." (Chapter 4: Uncle BIll)

My one problem with this book concerned the viewpoint. I suppose it's omniscient third person perspective, but there's a lot of "Darkus felt ..." and "Alan thought..." So it's more like limited third person, but with shifts in viewpoint from paragraph to paragraph. I found it occasionally distracting - it took me out of the story. (Note: I was reading the advanced copy, so this could theoretically be changed in the final book.) Like this:

"Draycott thought carefully about how to word this last piece of testimony. As he returned to scribbling, Tilly brushed by indifferently..."

And then the viewpoint shifts to Tilly. It's like in a movie, where you follow one character, and then another, but there are intermittent glimpses of people's inner monologues, too. 

Apart from that concern, I did enjoy Cracking the Code. The plot is suspenseful. There are various pieces to mull over and assemble, throughout the book. The kids are granted a fair bit of leeway to do things on their own, in a reasonably plausible manner. There are some interesting gadgets, and intelligence is definitely prized and rewarded. 

I think that Cracking the Code will be a good fit for fans of the Young James Bond series by Charlie Higson (though Darkus is more analytical than James). It should also be a good bridge book for middle schoolers prior to reading adult mysteries, including the Sherlock Holmes stories. As for me, I look forward to hearing what Alan, Darkus, and Tilly get up to next. Recommended for age 10 and up, boys or girls. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids) 
Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Source of Book: Advance Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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9. The Path of Names: Ari Goelman

Book: The Path of Names
Author: Ari Goelman
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10-14

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman is about a girl named Dahlia Sherman who loves magic tricks, does NOT want to go to Jewish summer camp, and ends up unraveling a 78-year-old mystery involving a Yiddish rabbinical student and the ghosts of two young girls. There are camp skits, mazes, and (minor) sibling rivalries. There's a creepy camp handyman, a posse of mean girls, and a boy with the potential to be a friend (and the inclination to be more). In short, The Path of Names has a little something for everyone.  

Dahlia is a strong character, a girl who doesn't care that much that the popular girls think she's weird, who likes math, and who just wants to understand things. She's at that age where she's resisting the boy-girl stuff, even as it swirls around her. She is delightfully furious when she finds out that her friend Rafe is letting people believe they are dating. I like that she uses her brain and tenacity to solve the mystery, despite making mistakes along the way.

Most of the book is told from Dahlia's limited third person viewpoint, but intermittent chapters are from the viewpoint of David Schank, a 17-year-old yeshiva student in 1940's New York City. A few sections are also told from the viewpoint of Dahlia's older brother, Tom, a counselor at the camp. Dahlia is the one that readers will relate to most of the three, through David's story is the more suspenseful one. Shifting the viewpoint between Dahlia and David will keep readers turning the pages, driven like Dahlia to understand what happened to the young student. 

The camp setting and details seemed authentic to me, though I never went to sleepaway camp (Jewish or otherwise). It is certainly not an idealized portrayal - there are details that strongly indicate the author's personal experience in a camp setting. Like this:

"Dahlia went up the stairs to the cabin. It smelled familiar from visiting Tom all these years: the musty scent of old wood, mingled with the smells of clean laundry and dirty shoes and nylon sleeping bags. She had sort of liked the smell when they visited Tom, but the girls' bunk smelled different, more girly. Had someone really brought perfume to summer camp?" (Page 9)

There is also quite a lot of information in The Path of Names about Jewish history and culture, kabbala, Hebrew words, etc. All of these things are central to the book's storyline. I found the details fascinating, and I think kids will too. Goelman does a nice job of broadening the reader's perspective, while still keeping his focus on plot and character.  

I do think that The Path of Names is more a book for middle schoolers than for elementary school kids. This is partly due to content (there is a small amount of drinking by the older kids, and there are deaths), but mostly due to the mystical themes, and the relatively grown-up perspective of David. Certainly, despite having a girl as the primary protagonist, The Path of Names is also boy-friendly (ghosts, mazes, magic tricks, pranks). Recommended for mystery and adventure fans, or anyone who likes the idea of seeing ghosts at summer camp. 

Publisher:  Arthur A. Levine Books (@Scholastic
Publication Date: April 30, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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10. The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers: Matthew J. Kirby

Book: The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers
Author: Matthew J. Kirby
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8 - 12

Spell Robbers is the first book in a new series by Matthew J. Kirby, The Quantum League. The premise of the book is that there are people, called Actuators, who can take advantage of quantum mechanics to bring about events with their thoughts. These events include everything from conjuring up fireballs and storm clouds to manipulating locks.

When 12-year-old Ben moves with his grad student mother to a new university, he's invited to join an after-school Science Camp in which a professor is training young Actuators. But when their professor, Dr. Hughes, invents a portable device that makes Actuators much more powerful, the camp is attacked. Dr. Hughes is kidnapped, and Ben and another boy are rescued, and co-opted, by The Quantum League. High-stakes adventures follow.

Kirby does a good job of keeping the plot moving, and adding sufficient twists to keep the reader guessing. I was able to anticipate some, but not all, of the twists. 

I also liked the fact that the capabilities described in Spell Robbers are based on science, rather than magic, even though there's not a huge difference in the end result. [Is "boy, plucked from obscurity, turns out to have strong powers as an Actuator" really all that different from "boy, plucked from obscurity, turns out to have the ability to do magic"?]. Here are a couple of snippets:

"At the atomic level," Dr. Hughes said, "reality is dependent on our observation of it. As the Nobel-winning physicist Eugene Wigner put it, reality is created when our consciousness 'reaches out.' When you actuate, you are reading out to create a potential reality. (Page 36)

"Non-Actuators," Agent Taggart said, "N-A's. Most people who cannot actuate don't really perceive it. It is a part of reality they are blind to, just like you're blind to infrared light. They see the aftermath of actuation, but they attribute it to other things. Freak storms. Freak accidents. Spontaneous combustion. That kind of thing." (Page 62)

I did find a bit disturbing the device that Kirby uses to separate Ben from his mother. I understand that some sort of device was necessary in order to free Ben up to have his high-stakes adventures. But, without giving away any plot points, I didn't like this one. There's also a whole "only kids can actuate because adult brains don't think that it's possible" element to the story that I could see as a necessary plot point (otherwise why would The Quantum League recruit 12-year-olds?), but that I found a bit ... tired. 

Still, I think that middle grade and middle school kids who enjoy over-the-top adventures will like Spell Robbers. There's a superhero vibe to the quantum battles that take place. There are also some scenes that take place in a creepy abandoned amusement park, a highly kid-friendly setting. Ben is smart and loyal. There are various unanswered questions left at the end of Spell Robbers, leaving plenty of room for future titles in the series. 

All in all, while perhaps not quite as original as I might have hoped, The Quantum League offers kid-friendly science fiction with three-dimensional characters (including a 16-year-old girl who helps train Ben) and a fast-moving plot. Definitely worth a look for elementary and middle school libraries, or as a gift for adventure-hungry readers. 

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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11. Bigger than a Bread Box: Laurel Snyder

Book: Bigger than a Bread Box
Author: Laurel Snyder
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

I love Laurel Snyder's writing. Good night, laila tov is one of my family's favorite bedtime stories, and I've reviewed both Any Which Wall and Penny Dreadful. I've been meaning to read Laurel's Bigger than a Bread Box for ages, having purchased a copy when it came out in paperback. But when the companion novel, Seven Stories Up, arrived on my doorstep, I finally brought Bigger than a Bread Box to the top of the pile. [Full disclosure, I'm Facebook friends with Laurel, and spent time with her at Kidlitcon a few years back, but I am certain that I would enjoy her books just as much without this connection.]

Bigger than a Bread Box is told from the viewpoint of 12-year-old Rebecca Shapiro. Rebecca lives in Baltimore with her parents and her two-year-old brother, Lew. Until, that is, her mother packs up Rebecca and Lew and moves to Atlanta, leaving their unemployed father behind. Bigger than a Bread Box is about Rebecca's fury at her mother for breaking up their family, her adjustment to a new middle school, and her gradual realization of her brother's importance to her. There's also a magical bread box that has unexpected consequences.

Despite the presence of the magical bread box, Bigger than a Bread Box has a much more realistic feel than Snyder's previous novels. The family dynamics are the point - the magic is more of a device. An afterword explains that Snyder mined her own experience as a child of divorce in writing Bigger than a Bread Box. I think this genuine emotion comes through successfully, and than any child experiencing parental separation will find something to relate to in Rebecca's experience. Like this scene, in which Rebecca is trying to remind Lew about their father:

"Lew started humming, and I wondered if any of this mattered. None of that would add up to Dad for Lew, if he'd already started to forget. Dad would just sound like some guy, some noisy, short, skinny guy who liked fishy pizza. That wasn't Dad any more than home was just boarded-up row houses and seagulls and snowball stands." (Page 101, paperback)

I must admit that I almost wanted to stop reading about half-way through the book, when the price that Rebecca was going to have to pay for the magic became clear. The middle school dynamics, while not the central point of the book, are still authentic enough to resonate painfully. Kids who have sacrificed their authenticity on the altar of "cool" may be able to relate to this, too. 

Rebecca isn't perfect. She makes mistakes, is materialistic about certain things, and is pretty harsh to her mother. But she has redeeming qualities, of course, like an appreciation for poetry. My favorite thing about Rebecca, hands down, is her affection for her brother, and her gradual recognition of him as a person in his own right. There's a point in which she thinks about trying to go back to Baltimore on her own, but realizes that she could never leave Lew behind, and I liked her for that. (Interesting contrast to Eleanor of Eleanor and Park, though the two girls are in very different situations.)

Snyder touches on Rebecca's half-Jewish identity with a light touch. She also includes various nods to people who love books, as Rebecca does. She brings a slightly heavier hand to the topic of the lack of appreciation that mothers can feel. Like this quote from Rebecca's mother:

"I am juggling so much and I am overworked and I just want a little time to think things out for myself. Everyone seems to need something from me or want something, and I don't even know what feels right or wrong anymore, and there are so many people to think about." (Page 145, paperback) 

As a mother myself, I found a scene in which Rebecca is trying to think of a birthday present for her mother, and she realizes that she has no idea what her mother's interests are, sad.

Bigger than a Bread Box is a must-purchase title for elementary and middle school libraries (especially in Baltimore and Atlanta). This nuanced look at divorce and family, as well as middle school social structures, offers something for everyone. The magical element helps to keep things light, while also adding some insights about accountability. Recommended!

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 2011
Source of Book: Bought it

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© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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12. The Winter of the Robots: Kurtis Scaletta

Book: The Winter of the Robots
Author: Kurtis Scaletta
Pages: 272
Age Range: 10 and up

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta is a fun, science-themed mystery, perfect for middle schoolers. First-person narrator Jim lives in a slightly run-down neighborhood in North Minneapolis. He and his best friend Oliver are science geeks. But when Jim chooses a girl named Rocky as his partner for a science project, instead of working with Oliver, he sets a series of unexpected events in motion. Joined by Oliver's replacement partner Dmitri, the four young teens discover a mysterious junkyard, and the suggestion of robots living in the wild. 

There's a lot to like about The Winter of the Robots. The chilly Minneapolis winter setting feels authentic, as do the friend and sibling relationships. Jim's little sister, Penny, is a strong character, as is Rocky, a girl who wants to get her hands dirty. Penny is a bit of a pest, but smart, too. Jim's dad is realistically flawed, with a barely controlled temper. There's a nice scene in which Jim starts to see his dad clearly, something that is certainly part of growing up. All in all, I thought Scaletta did a nice job of allowing freedom for Jim and his friends to accomplish something meaningful, while still having concerned parents. 

Here's Rocky to Jim, after he sees her work a snowblower:

"My dad has taught me how to do everything. He says women get cheated out of learning stuff. I've changed the oil on a car. I've run an electric drill and a power saw. I even welded once." (Page 32)

And here's Oliver. 

"That's what scientists do. They revise an idea, evolve it, and make it better." Both of Oliver's parents were scientists, so he would know. He was a mad scientist in training. He already had the brilliant mind, the wild hair, and the thick glasses. All he needed was a hunchbacked assistant." (Page 4)

Scaletta also manages to include some diversity among the characters. Dmitri has a minor disability, and spends time helping his autistic younger brother. Several adults from the neighborhood play a role in the kids' adventures, and not all of them are upstanding citizens.

As you would expect from a book called The Winter of the Robots, there is a ton of information here about how to build robots. The technical parts are well-integrated into the text, such that the book doesn't feel informational (Jim is learning as he builds things). It may even inspire young readers to become involved in building robots themselves. Some of the technical details dragged a little bit for me as an adult reader (who isn't particularly interested in building robots), but I liked the positive portrayal of kids who are smart and passionate about science.

Apart from that, I though that the plot has a nice pace, and a good use of red herrings and innuendo. There are a fair number of characters to keep track of, and one of them does come to a bad end (offstage). While perhaps a bit difficult for 8 or 9 year olds, I think The Winter of the Robots will be a nice addition to the reading options for mystery- and/or tech-loving middle schoolers. While clearly aimed at boys, the presence of two strong female characters (Rocky and Penny) keeps it girl-friendly, too. There's a smidgen of boy-girl relationship dynamics, but nothing for anyone to worry about. Recommended for readers age 10 and up. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: October 8, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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13. Heaven Is Paved with Oreos: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Book: Heaven Is Paved with Oreos
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Pages: 208
Age Range: 10-14

I loved, loved, loved Catherine Gilbert Murdock's books about D.J. Schwenk (Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and Front and Center). So when I heard that Murdock had written a book called Heaven is Paved with Oreos, for a slightly younger audience, I scooped it up. I didn't even realize until reading a review at Book Nut last week that this new book is set in the Schwenk universe. What a lovely and unexpected gift!

Heaven is Paved with Oreos is told in journal fashion from the viewpoint of Sarah Zorn, best friend and science partner of D.J.'s younger brother, Curtis. It's the summer before freshman year, and Sarah and Curtis are pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend, so that people will stop asking them if they are boyfriend and girlfriend. But Sarah is a bit concerned about another girl from their class who appears to want to be Curtis' real girlfriend, making Sarah self-conscious about, say, going to Curtis' baseball games. Meanwhile, Sarah's grandmother, who everyone calls Z, invites Sarah to accompany her on a week-long pilgrimage to Rome. The trip turns out to be a bit more than Sarah bargained for, but it certainly contributes to her emotional growth over the course of the summer.

So, basically Heaven is Paved with Oreos is a coming of age story, a book about family, and a book about taking baby steps towards boy-girl relationships. It falls to the upper end of middle grade, I think, given the 14-year-old narrator, and a storyline involving the father of Z's illegitimate child, born some 45 years earlier. But it is absolutely perfect for middle school-age readers, I think. 

I fear that some fans of the Dairy Queen books will be a bit disappointed by Heaven is Paved with Oreos, because the content is a bit less mature. But personally, I was happy to be spending time back in D.J.'s universe, however I got there. I found myself reading Heaven is Paved with Oreos slowly, because I was just so happy to be spending time with the characters. D.J. is a character in this book, someone Sarah looks up to and gets advice from. But Murdock is quite clear throughout that this is Sarah's story. It's not necessary to have read the Dairy Queen books to read this one, though it undoubtedly enhances appreciation of the book.

One thing that I especially liked about Heaven is Paved with Oreos is how Murdock handles the journal style storyline. She tells you, briefly and without taking you out of the story, where Sarah is when she's writing each journal entry. There's an entry, then she goes somewhere and writes there, then she goes home and writes there, and so on. This lends an immediacy to the narration that works well. One might think to question whether a fourteen-year-old girl would really sit in a cafe in Rome writing in her journal. But Sarah is a strong enough character to totally pull it off. 

I LOVE that Sarah is interested in science. That's the source of the bond between Sarah and Curtis, a mutual fascination with physical science (studying animal skeletons, and so on). She's also just ... secure in who she is. She has things she is working on, sure, but she's happy to eat nothing but vanilla ice cream, for instance, and work on projects that other people think are disgusting. Here are a couple of snippets, to give you a feel for Sarah's voice:

"I wanted to be sympathetic -- Paul looked so upset -- but I could not help being reasonable. Reasonableness is a byproduct of a scientific mind." (Page 11-12)

Oh, I would have been friends with Sarah when I was fourteen. And this:

"Lady Z does not eat anything made with wheat. She says the hardest part was giving up Oreos, but they are made with wheat flour, so even though they are absolutely delicious and perfect, they're out. If I ever stopped eating wheat, I would make a rule that I could only be 99% wheatless. The last 1% I would leave for Oreos." (Page 16).

Curtis is, well, Curtis. For a character who says hardly anything, he still feels completely himself. Like this: 

"I nodded. Curtis stared at the floor, but that is not unusual for him." (Page 26). 

Lady Z is more complex. I like that though she's larger-than-life (not at all a regular grandma), she's also clearly flawed. Part of Sarah's growing up throughout the book involves coming to terms with the fact that you can love someone even if they aren't perfect. As Z is not. 

Fans of Murdock's books about D.J. Schwenk will definitely want to give Heaven is Paved with Oreos a look. I loved it, and plan to keep my copy for when Baby Bookworm is older. There are spoilers for the Dairy Queen books, so even though this newest book is appropriate for a somewhat younger audience, readers unfamiliar with the series may want to wait to read the Dairy Queen books first. I think that the whole series is wonderful. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHBooks)
Publication Date: September 3, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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14. Inspiring Independent Writing in a Jam-Packed Curriculum

Kristen Robbins Warren honors her middle school students' independent writing lives by incorporating three literary rhythms (Monday Morning's Muse, Wednesday's Writing Window, and Friday Favorites) into the school week.

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15. Anchor Charts in the World Language Classroom? Mais Oui!

Learn how literacy coach Mindi Rench has helped middle school world language teachers to con-construct charts with their students, which has helped students' writing in French and Spanish.

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16. Slicing Through the School Year

Tara Smith shares how she launched, maintained, and celebrating the writing slice of life stories and comments -- all year long -- with her sixth grade students.

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17. Too Cool for This School by Kristen Tracy

Looking for a fun book to read as summer winds to a close? Here's a recommendation for our younger readergirlz: Too Cool for This School by Kristen Tracy!

Lane's sixth grade year isn't quite going how she planned it. When her same-age cousin Angelina unexpectedly comes to stay with Lane and her parents for a month, she totally disrupts everything at home and at school. Within days of her arrival, Angelina destroys one of Lane's favorite shirts, clashes with Lane's friends, and clicks with Lane's crush and sort-of boyfriend. Angelina decides to go by her middle name, Mint. Lane tries to give her cousin advice on how to blend in, but Mint doesn't take it. Soon, pretty much everything Mint does or says rubs Lane the wrong way.

Anyone who is or has been 11 to 13 years old can tell you a horror story or two about their social life during middle school. Some kids stress out about fitting in, while others stand out for any number of reasons, whether they want to or not. While Lane thinks Mint is eccentric, other classmates embrace Mint's exuberance. Likewise, some readers will probably think Mint's outfits are zany while others will applaud her daring-do. As in her previous middle grade stories The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter and Bessica Lefter Bites Back, author Kristen Tracy reminds us of our best and worst moments in middle school, handling both the triumphs and the mortifying moments with just the right mix of surprise and worry. 

Click here to read the rest of my review!

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18. StarWars: Jedi Academy, by Jeffrey Brown

I am a child of the 1970s, so of course I saw Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the movie theatres right when they came out.  What kid didn't?  I did not, however, keep up with the series and see the other movies.  As my neighbor Nick (14yo) always points out, "Stacy, why do you keep saying you saw the first three?  You really didn't, you know.  You saw Episodes 4, 5, and 6!".  Yes, I know.  I put this out there to let you know that even though I am not particularly well versed in the new/old Star Wars movies, I got a tremendous amount of enjoyment out of this graphic novel/ illustrated novel hybrid.

Roan Novachez has always known that he is "destined to attend Pilot Academy Middle School and become the GREATEST star pilot in the GALAXY." (p. 1)  But destiny seems to take a wrong turn for most of us in middle school, doesn't it?  Roan's friends all start receiving their acceptances to the academy, but his letter seems to be taking longer than everyone else's.  Instead of following his brother Dav's footsteps into the pilot life, Roan receives his rejection letter from the school.  He is devastated.

Soon, however, he receives a letter from the Jedi Academy.  Complete with a hand written note by Yoda himself, Roan is invited to attend the school even though most kids are accepted when they are toddlers and Roan himself didn't even apply.  It seems rather curious.

When Roan gets to the academy, he really feels like a fish out of water.  The other kids been there for a while, and they all seem to be able to use the force in controlled ways.  Roan is working on figuring out not only the force, but how to navigate the typical middle school things that all kids deal with no matter what planet they are from.  Things like dealing with bullies, figuring out where to sit in the cafeteria, opening his combination lock, and navigating a dance!  There are some things unique to Roan's situation as well - trying to understand what the heck Yoda is talking about, wielding a light saber, surviving a camping trip involving Wookies!

This is a fun and laugh-out-loud look into middle school that happens to be situated in a Star Wars culture.  Readers needn't be super well versed in Star Wars to enjoy Roan's adventures.  The cover will definitely attract younger readers, but I do think that the audience that will get the most enjoyment out of the story are 4th-6th graders who are wading into similar waters.

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19. The Runaway King: Book 2 of the Ascendance Trilogy: Jennifer A. Nielsen

Book: The Runaway King: Book 2 of the Ascendance Trilogy
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen (@NielsenWriter)
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10 and up 

The Runaway King is the second book in Jennifer Nielsen's Ascendance Trilogy, following last year's The False Prince. The Runaway King is that rare second book of a trilogy that completely holds up. If you haven't read The False Prince, stop here, because there will be spoilers for the first book (though not the second). Just go read it. The False Prince is fabulous. 

While The Runaway King lacks the unforgettable solo twist that characterized The False Prince, Nielsen compensates by repeatedly upping the stakes for Sage/Jaron, now King of Carthya. In order to save his kingdom, and himself, Sage sets off in disguise on a dangerous quest. There are pirates, surprises, and betrayals. There are swordfights, ethical dilemmas, and enemies (old and new). But there are also new friends and allies for Jaron, and a much better understanding, by the end of the book, of who his friends really are.  

Nielsen's plotting is multi-layered and adept, and will keep readers eagerly turning pages. The very first line of the book is "I had arrived early for my own assassination." Who could stop reading after that? Well, the whole book is like that. You simply can't put it down. 

But what I personally love most about this series, and this book, is the character of Jaron. His central character trait is stubbornness. He is the very personification of the expression "loyal to a fault." He is self-deprecating in his speech, but in a endlessly entertaining sort of way. Like this:

"I nodded, and when Kerwyn entered the room, Mott made an excuse about finding more alcohol and left. I thought he looked a little exasperated when he glanced back, but people often did when they talked with so it was hardly worth noting." (Page 40)

and this: 

"Erick continued to look at me. "I think I may grow to hate you before this is over."

"You don't already and that's got to be some sort of record."

To my surprise, Erick laughed." (Page 161)

Here is one more passage that shows you Jaron's character:

"This had become my favorite place on the frequent occasions when I needed to get away from everyone. The bright springtime flowers were surrounded by tall, dense hedges and lined with plants of every variety. Majestic trees kept the view from above concealed through most seasons of the year, and the grass was soft enough to make bare feet nearly mandatory." (Page 2)

I love that "to make bare feet nearly mandatory." Just listen to the way I talk about this character. It is as though he is real. I predict that we'll see him in a movie or three one day.

The Runaway King has a strong central character, complex supporting characters (I love Mott), an action-packed plot, and a fully realized setting. No sophomore slump for Jennifer Nielsen, that's for sure. This is a perfect book to give to kids who love adventure. Though it's set in an imaginary, medieval sort of land, there are no magical elements to the story. But there are pirates! A map of the pirate camp is included at the start of the book, as a hint to where things are going. 

Highly recommended for middle grade readers as well as teens, boys and girls. But make sure they read The False Prince first. As for me, I'm already looking forward to Book 3. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Source of Book: Bought it at a book signing

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20. Lenny Cyrus, School Virus: Joe Schreiber

Book: Lenny Cyrus, School Virus
Author: Joe Schreiber
Illustrator: Matt Smith
Pages: 288
Age Range: 9 and up 

Lenny Cyrus, School Virus is a middle grade novel about a geeky middle school boy who figures out how to shrink himself down to the size of a virus. Instead of calling the news cameras, Lenny uses this scientific breakthrough to insert his miniaturized self into the body of Zooey, a girl he's had a crush on for five years.

The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Lenny, Zooey, and Lenny's best friend, Harlan. These alternating viewpoints are necessary, given that, you know, Lenny can't see what's going on outside of Zooey's body for much of the story. The voices of the three kids aren't incredibly diverse, but their situations are so different that I only once had trouble remembering who was narrating a given chapter (this was late in the book, where the chapters become quite brief as the action ramps up). 

Despite the characters being in middle school, Lenny Cyrus, School Virus feels like a middle grade novel. The plot is a fun ride, though it does require a certain suspension of belief. Lenny and Harlan are able to communicate by cell phone, for example, while Lenny is miniaturized to the size of a virus. The other viruses and cells and what-have-you inside of Zooey have faces and personalities and active social lives.

[Personally, the detail that I found most implausible was that Lenny's parents could be high school sweethearts, and both have IQs above 187. How could there be two super-geniuses like that in one high school? And if there were, how could they be normal enough to function and marry? But that is a quibble.]

There are crushes, and one ludicrous attempt at a kiss, but there's no serious dating or anything like that. There is bullying, but even that is rendered more in humorous than serious vein. (Remember that scene in A Christmas Story where Ralphie beats up the bully? Yeah. Like that.)

Schreiber's writing is witty, albeit with a scientific bent. I flagged quite a number of passages. Like:

""Are you crying?"

"What? No. No. I'm just ... sweating."

"From your eyes?"

I gazed at her, unable to speak. I was only eight years old, but I knew true beauty when I saw it. She had smooth hair that swung down past her shoulders and the kind of scratchy voice that made it sound like she'd just stopped laughing or was about to start again. Behind her glasses, her eyes were that mure methylene blue that you only see in perfectly balanced chemical solutions." (Page 4, Lenny)

And this:

"The moment they saw us--saw me--a predatory glint flashed through Mick's expression. Anybody who doubts that middle school is like a Discovery Channel documentary on natural selection just hasn't been paying attention." (Page 10, Lenny)

And finally (though I could go on):

"He can't help it. You try growing up with two Nobel Prize-winning scientists sitting across the breakfast table from you. Lenny doesn't like to talk about it, but he's at least as smart as his mom and dad, probably smarter. And let's face it: You can't be that smart without being extremely dumb in other ways. It's like the universe strapped this jet-pack on his back, then Gorilla-glued his sneakers to the floor. He's constantly reaching out too far and falling flat on his face." (Page 13, Harlan)

I especially loved that last bit, about the jet-pack and the Gorilla glue. But lots of other passages made me smile, too. 

Lenny Cyrus, School Virus includes occasional black and white illustrations by Matt Smith. Small drawings of each narrator mark the start of each chapter, and are helpful in conveying the different personalities of the three kids. Other illustrations bring to life Lenny's inner-world mission. The funniest, I thought, was of a curvaceous molecule located inside Zooey's ovary - but I really can't describe it. An astrovirus who befriends Lenny is pretty cute, too. 

So what we have here is, yes, another quasi-science-themed book featuring a smart but geeky male hero (see also Itch by Simon Mayo). But Lenny Cyrus, School Virus is a lot of fun. The shifting perspectives also, I think, help to make the book both boy and girl-friendly. Which is quite an accomplishment for a book in which a pivotal scene takes place inside of an ovary. 

Lenny Cyrus, School Virus is not going to be for everyone. But if you know any middle grade or middle school-age kids who like science and/or adventure, and have a good sense of humor, I think they'll enjoy this book. Definitely worth a look for library purchase, and especially recommended for a young friend of mine who lives in Newton, MA. 

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (@hmhkids)
Publication Date: April 2, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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21. The Quick Fix, by Jack D. Ferraiolo

This is a book I have been meaning to read for quite some time now.  The Big Splash is a book that has a constant and steady flow of readers at our school.  I enjoyed it very much, but somehow I had not gotten around to reading the sequel.  Boy, I'm glad I finally did!

It's only 2 weeks after the end of The Big Splash.  Matt is experiencing a bit of a moment of celebrity himself, and more and more kids are interested in his services.  He is a bit surprised when beautiful cheerleader Melissa Scott, girlfriend of basketball star Will Atkins, want to hire him to follow her famously sporty boyfriend around.  Matt isn't exactly used to dealing with the beautiful cheerleader type, and little does he know that Melissa is just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, Vinny is still ruling The Frank, and he isn't about to leave Matt's talents untouched.  He too, wants Matt's services and doesn't give him much of a choice about the matter.  Liz, who is pulling away from Matt at this point, accuses him of having a lack of moral compass.  Matt is left wondering if he is any better than Vinny and his thugs.

Throw in some twists and turns of the family mystery, a super twisty path toward a romance, and wrap it all in a noir package and you have The Quick Fix.  And somehow it works.  Readers totally buy into Ferraiolo's world with it's rules and slang.  Kids have pixy stix addictions, water guns seal their fates, basketball games are fixed, and it all makes sense.  There is a sensibility to Ferraiolo's writing that oozes commitment and authenticity.  Kids get this and they enjoy every moment of it.  If you haven't made time to read this one yet, you should.

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22. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library: Chris Grabenstein

Book: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library
Author: Chris Grabenstein (@CGrabenstein
Pages: 304
Age Range: 9-12 

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library is a humorous, puzzle-filled novel aimed at middle grade readers. More madcap than Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society books, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library reads like a cross between the Pseudonymous Bosch books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (original movie version). It's a fun ride. 

The big event in Kyle Keeley's town is the grand opening of the new town public library. Alexandriaville, a small Ohio city, has been without a public library for 12 years (since the decision was made to level the old one to put in a parking garage). Eccentric millionaire Mr. Luigi L. Lemoncello has decided to put things right by building the town a fabulous, quirky, state-of-the-art library. Kyle and his classmates enter an essay contest for 12 year olds (who have grown up never having a town library). The 12 winners will have a sleepover in the library the night before it opens. And, in fact, that sleepover becomes extended when the 12 students are offered a chance to engage in a 24-hour contest to escape from the library. 

Despite not being much of a student, Kyle is a determined game player (obsessed with beating his two talented older brothers in something). He and his best friend Akimi (just how common are male-female best friends among real 12-year-olds, I wonder, though I understand why they make sense in books) are protagonists who are easy to root for. The bad guy, the spoiled, hypercompetitive Charles Chiltington, is easy to root against. In truth, the characterization in Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library is a bit thin. But this is not a book to read for introspective character analysis. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library is a book to read for:

  • Puzzles, riddles, and word games (including rebuses);
  • Cool technology (animatronics, interactive holograms, and sophisticated computer screens);
  • Fast-paced adventure; and
  • The love of children's books.

The last point is probably my personal favorite aspect of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library. Mr. Lemoncello spouts children's literature references and book titles the way that Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka spouts quotations (casually, insightfully, and incessantly). Like this:

"Sorry. The correct answer is--and not just because of Winn-Dixie--D) all of the above." (Chapter 8)

"As Dr. Zinchenko informed you, I'd like to say a few brief words. Here they are: short, memorandum, and underpants. And, let us pause to remember the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: 'The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the places you'll go.'" (Chapter 10)

(After being asked if he had something available) "Did Joey Pigza lose control? Was Ella enchanted." (Chapter 25)

You get the idea. I like that Grabenstein's children's literature references range from the classic (Seuss, L.M. Montgomery) to the modern (Rebecca Stead and Jack Gantos). Without being at all pedantic, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library is a cover to cover celebration of books. The fact that Kyle himself isn't "big on books" keeps this pro-book sentiment from being off-putting to more dormant readers. 

But I think that the combination of quirky puzzles, cutting-edge technology, and adventure sequences (racing around the library building, climbing things, getting stuck, etc.) is what will make Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library a must-purchase title for libraries serving middle grade readers. As Mr. Lemoncello tells the kids' parents, "It'll be like The Hunger Games but with lots of food and no bows or arrows." What 10-year-old could resist that? Recommended. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: June 25, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from Raab Associates (@sraab18)

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This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


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23. Best Summer Vacation or Bust

Summer is officially in swing, at least it is here in the South–and I guess it must be gearing up pretty soon in the rest of North America. Sorry Australia. As the weather warms up and my nephew collects spare change in his vacation jug, it puts me in mind of some of my best vacations. Actually it’s hard to choose a best. I’ve been pretty lucky.

Definitely one of the best vacations of my childhood would be the combined summers at Space Camp. I was technically a teenager, technically a middle-schooler, but I can be nerdy enough to admit that space absolutely turned me into an excited little kid and although it wasn’t really anything like the movie, Space Camp was an incredible adventure.

The first year was a whirl-wind. I didn’t know anyone, but it didn’t matter because everyone was a lot like me. I met Heidi right away, a girl who became a very dear, lifelong friend. Much from the two years actually blurs together now, in fact every time I think of a memory from the first year, I start to wonder if it was actually the second year. Which year did I get my head stuck between the bunkbeds? Which year did we build the rocket that was rather hideous and was named The Load Toad? Which year did we look at Jupiter in the giant telescope? Which year did we tour the training facility where astronauts practice weightless maneuvers in dive suits inside a ginormous tank?

I honestly can’t remember anymore. (My memory is terrible. Just ask D. He’s my official memory-keeper. As in, “Remind me to go to the bank. Remind me to eat dinner. Remind me what day it is.”)

What I do remember is that I had so much fun. Every moment was as thrilling as the breathless 4Gs of the Space Shot. Technically, it wasn’t Space Camp. Technically the first year was Space Academy (Level I) and the second year was Advanced Space Academy. Heidi and I were the only girls on the “pilot” track that year, but we hung tough with the boys and loved it. We trained hard and then executed 3 separate missions: We flew the shuttle, we performed experiments on the space station, and we assisted the other teams from the safety of Mission Control. I swear it was exactly like Apollo 13. Except without, you know, Gary Sinise. Or Ed Harris.

There were movies in the OmniMax and private tours of the museum. And So. Many. Dippin’ Dots. We even had our own turn in a big “weightless” metal water tank. Unfortunately I had allergies and was terrified of getting the benz (in 30 feet of water…), so I  snorkeled instead. Probably for the best because a tornado choose that moment to make an appearance, and we were unceremoniously hauled from the tank early and sent down to the safety of the basement museum, our wetsuits still dripping. I am, however, slightly haunted by my fear of scuba diving, and as I have never had a good snorkeling experience (stories to come, I’m sure), I hope some day to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef.

One of the highlights of camp was meeting an actual astronaut, and somewhere there may still be photographic evidence. I wish I could say that Space Camp was where I learned not to lose my camera, but alas, remember what I said about my memory? If not, then perhaps your memory is worse than mine. That’s a scary thought.

I can’t speak for other programs, but my time at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center was truly unparalleled, and I would encourage everyone to go–at least for the day. In fact, given what a good time he had at the Ren Faire, it might be time to haul the Star Wars obsessed E down to Alabama for the day.

What are some of your favorite vacation spots? Best memories? Feel free to share–I’m always looking for someplace new to go. As my dad always says, “You want to do everything.” Well maybe not everything–bungee jumping just doesn’t sound like something I should do.

Tagged: Astronauts, Being Brave, Dippin' Dots, friends, Middle School, snorkeling, Space Camp, Summer, Vacation

4 Comments on Best Summer Vacation or Bust, last added: 6/6/2013
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24. Slicing in the Classroom All Year Long

The week of June 10th was hectic around here.  I had a sleuth of appointments, was doing major revisions to the keynote I’m delivering this Thursday, and was getting ready to visit family… Read More

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25. Mr. Terupt Falls Again: Rob Buyea

Book: Mr. Terupt Falls Again
Author: Rob Buyea
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12 

Mr. Terupt Falls Again is billed as a "companion" to Rob Buyea's Because of Mr. Terupt. I suppose this is because Buyea wrapped things up pretty thoroughly in Because of Mr. Terupt. You don't need to read this as a sequel in the sense of having to find out how things play out. However, for all practical purposes, Mr. Terupt Falls Again looks like a sequel to me. It features the same teacher and the same kids, albeit in a physically different classroom. Yes, the seven kids from Because of Mr. Terupt are back with their teacher, Mr. Terupt, as sixth graders (and yes, just knowing that is a spoiler for the first book - it can't be helped). If you haven't read Because of Mr. Terupt, and you like realistic fiction set in and around schools, you'll want to rectify the situation immediately.

Like it's predecessor, Mr. Terupt Falls Again centers on a subset of the kids in a classroom, a classroom led by a risk-taking, energetic teacher. The perspective shifts from kid to kid, from chapter to chapter. All of the chapters are quite short, helping to move things along quickly. The book is divided into months across the school year. 

As in the first book, Buyea's understanding of kids, and of classroom dynamics, is evident on every page. This kids are as real as it gets. The problems that they face as sixth graders reflect their growing up. There are plotlines dealing with a girl trying to grow up too quickly (stuffing her bra, hanging out with older kids), a girl getting her first period (and not knowing what to do), and a boy resisting going off to boarding school next year. There are also the first inklings of boys and girls "liking" each other, though in a completely PG way.

There's a scene that takes place with the kids at a town carnival, forming into tentative couples, with the boys trying to win prizes for the girls. This SO took me back to the Fourth of July weekend carnivals in my own home town (though I didn't personally have any boys trying to win me prizes when I was in sixth grade). Buyea gets the feel of the carnival, and mix of the excited and insecure thoughts of the various kids, just right. I could practically smell the fried dough. 

There is a bit of suspense in Mr. Terupt Falls Again. Observant Luke notices that Mr. Terupt (who suffered a brain injury in the first book) is displaying some physical weakness. We don't know while reading along (and I won't say), what the "falls again" of the title refers to. There's also an abandoned baby, discovered by Jeffrey, lending pathos more than suspense, I suppose. As an adult reader, I worried the potential consequences of Lexie getting in with the wrong crowd. But I also appreciate very much the way that Buyea, in a non-didactic way, opens up paths by which parents and/or teachers can initiate discussions with kids.

Some of the resolutions in Mr. Terupt Falls Again may be a tiny bit idealized, but I personally don't think that there's anything wrong with showing the upsides of: 

  • Talking openly with your parents;
  • Being loyal to your friends;
  • Finding the right sport or hobby; and
  • Trusting your teacher

Rob Buyea is the real deal, creating authentic kids, and throwing realistic and age-appropriate problems at them. The Mr. Terupt books belong on the shelves of school and classroom libraries everywhere that fourth to seventh graders are to be found. While the "getting your period" and "stuffing your bra" plotline in Mr. Terupt Falls Again may make boys uncomfortable (even Mr. Terupt is a little uncomfortable), there is so much else here that will resonate with boys that I hope they'll read it, and talk about it, anyway. Highly recommended for kids, and their parents. Mr. Terupt Falls Again is a satisfying conclusion to this short series. I hope to see other books from Rob Buyea in the future. 

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: October 9, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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